According to the World Health Organization, around 35% of women have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. Efforts to reduce such violence have increased in recent years, but a new series published in The Lancet claims that much more needs to be done.

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Researchers say more needs to be done on a global scale to tackle violence against women.

According to the authors, levels of violence against women – including intimate partner violence, female genital mutilation (FGM), forced marriages and trafficking – remain “unacceptably high.”

They point out, for example, that between 100-140 million females worldwide have suffered FGM – defined as intentionally causing injury or altering the female genital organs for reasons that are non-medical. Such procedures are most common among girls under the age of 15. In Africa alone, around 3 million girls are at risk of FGM each year.

What is more, around 70 million girls worldwide are married before the age of 18, and the researchers note that the majority of these marriages are forced.

“The effect of violence against women and girls on their health and welfare, their families and communities is substantial,” say the authors.

Over the past 20 years, the global focus on violence toward women has increased significantly. The authors of the series point out that there has been much more research into the underlying causes of violence against women.

“There has also been enormous growth in the quantity and breadth of interventions in diverse settings, including in health care, justice systems, and social campaigns to address violence against women and girls worldwide,” they add.

But despite gaining more attention, the authors claim that there have been some major gaps in addressing violence against women. They point out, for example, that the majority of studies investigating potential interventions to reduce violence against women have been conducted in high-income countries – particularly the US, where two thirds of studies were carried out.

Furthermore, the authors found that the majority of studies focused on responses to violence rather than violence prevention.

“Globally, 1 in 3 women will experience intimate partner and/or sexual violence by non-partners in their lifetime, which shows that more investment needs to be made in prevention,” says co-lead author of the series Prof. Charlotte Watts, of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in the UK, adding:

We definitely need to strengthen services for women experiencing violence, but to make a real difference in the lives of women and girls, we must work towards achieving gender equality and preventing violence before it even starts.

No magic wand will eliminate violence against women and girls. But evidence tells us that changes in attitudes and behaviors are possible, and can be achieved within less than a generation.”

But what can be done on a global scale to reduce violence against women? First of all, the authors say there needs to be more focus not only on the victims of violence, but on the perpetrators of violence.

“Violence-prevention interventions can reduce levels of intimate-partner violence and should seek to address attitudes, norms and beliefs that justify violence against women, link dominant notions of masculinity to male authority over women, and stigmatize victims, especially in low-income and middle-income countries,” note the authors.

They also point out that, although violence is often viewed as a social and criminal justice issue, the health care system plays a very important role when it comes to preventing violence and treating the victims.

“Health care providers are often the first point of contact for women and girls experiencing violence,” says co-lead author Dr. Claudia Garcia-Moreno, a physician at the World Health Organization (WHO), adding:

Early identification of women and children subjected to violence and a supportive and effective response can improve women’s lives and well-being, and help them to access vital services.

Health care providers can send a powerful message – that violence is not only a social problem, but a dangerous, unhealthy and harmful practice – and they can champion prevention efforts in the community. The health community is missing important opportunities to integrate violence programming meaningfully into public health initiatives on HIV/AIDS, adolescent health, maternal health and mental health.”

With these points in mind, the authors recommend five actions they say should be undertaken by policy makers worldwide:

  1. They should acknowledge that violence against girls and women affects health and development, and they should ensure adequate resources are allocated for interventions that may help prevent such violence
  2. They need to enforce and strengthen laws that prohibit violence toward females and ensure that national laws, policies and institutions over all sectors promote equality for women
  3. They must invest in programs that promote equality for women, as well as those that promote non-violent behavior and offer support for victims
  4. The role of the health sector needs to be strengthened. There needs to be increased awareness of violence against women among health professionals and training on how to deal with such cases
  5. There needs to be more investment in research to identify strategies that can prevent violence against women, and these strategies need to be actioned.

Commenting on these actions, series coordinator Dr. Cathy Zimmerman, of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, says:

“We now have some promising findings to show what works to prevent violence. Our upcoming challenge is to expand this evidence on prevention and support responses to many more settings and forms of violence. Most importantly, we urgently need to turn this evidence into genuine action so that women and girls can live violence-free lives.”

In an editorial linked to the series, Jimmy Carter, former US President and founder of The Carter Center in Atlanta, GA, says that society has become desensitized to violence and it has become increasingly accepted. “As long as this is true, abuse of women and girls will continue,” he says, adding:

It is my hope that political and religious leaders will step forward and use their influence to communicate clearly that violence against women and girls must stop, that we are failing our societies, and that the time for leadership is now.”

Last year, Medical News Today reported on a presentation by executive director of UNAIDS Michel Sidibé, who stated that ending violence against women is crucial for eradicating the HIV/AIDS pandemic.